Gregg Loomis

The Coptic Secret

The fifth book in the Lang Reilly series, 2009

In Memoriam: Lenora Holloman. I've lost my most ardent reader.



The Vatican

August 1510

Father Simon had found the key.

Well, if not exactly 'found,' borrowed, taken without its owner's knowledge long enough to have it copied. A very expensive process.

Another reason to suspect this man Buonarroti.

Why would an artisan, a mere artist, be entitled to such an elaborate key to his room? The Holy Father had granted other workmen laboring on the new St. Peter's Basilica lodging here at the Vatican. But none had such a costly key if they had one at all.

What need did carpenters, stonemasons and the like have to lock their rooms, anyway? Such simple men had perhaps an extra shirt and a sheepskin to shelter them from the weather, hardly anything worth locking away.

Buonarroti was different.

Five years earlier, he had fled his small studio behind the Piazza Rusticucci, hardly one of Rome 's more prestigious neighborhoods, for Florence. Only the command of Pope Julius II and a heated written exchange brought him back to finish the business.

From his return to Rome to the present, il papa had granted the man special privilege.

First, Buonarroti's experience was as a sculptor, not a painter.

Second, the man had a foul disposition. Years ago, as a mere apprentice, had he not quarreled with his master, the well-known Ghirlandaio? Even now, he had nothing but harsh words to say about the widely popular Raphael, the architect of the entire rebuilding program. And his shouting arguments with the pope himself were common scandal.

Admittedly, Julius's temper was legendary. At any one time, half the Vatican staff exhibited scars and bruises from His Holiness's cane. So how could he not punish a mere artisan for literally throwing timbers from the chapel's scaffolding at God's anointed pope himself?

Then there was the matter of Buonarroti's piety, or lack thereof. The man attributed his admitted talent not to a bountiful God but to the alignment of planets on the day of his birth some thirty-eight years ago. More pagan than Christian. And there was always the feeling the man knew more than he was telling, that he had some special knowledge gained from sources other than the church's interpretation of the Holy Scriptures, an illicit source that caused him to sneer at church doctrine. Had he not been essential to Julius's plans, the Inquisition might have taken an interest in him.

For all of these reasons Father Simon had become suspicious and sought a duplicate key.

As a member of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, essentially the Vatican 's housekeeping organization, no one would think it unusual to see Father Simon in the upper-floor halls of the east wing of the basilica, where many of the workmen were housed. It would not be strange should someone see him doing his job of inspecting the various living quarters.

Still, he paused outside the room, trying to probe the shadows of the corridor, a hallway largely sheltered from the fierce sun of a Roman summer. Once he was certain no one was in this part of the hallway, he inserted the key, fumbled for a moment and pushed the door open.

At first he saw nothing unusual. A bed across from a small fireplace. At the foot was an oak chest, locked and bound in brass, no doubt to hold the ten ducats a month, the outrageous pay this man had demanded from His Holiness. A rough chair, a table littered with brushes, paint pots and pestles in which to grind pigment.

Then he stopped, unsure of what he was looking at. Figures, forms that…

Father Simon felt the back of his neck prickle. Surely he was not seeing what he thought.


If so, this man was a heretic at best, a demon at worst.

This man who called himself only by his first name: Michelangelo.


Jabal al-Tarif

Near Nag Hammaddi

Upper Egypt

December 1945

Muhammad Alf al-Salman and his brother Hassam Mustafa wanted revenge. Not only did family honor demand it, their grief at the murder of their father had become a hatred simmering like hot coals.

But first the sabakh, the soft soil used to fertilize the crops, make them grow in the dry, barren sand. They had ridden the two old camels out here to the mountain where they were using mattocks to dig around a boulder.

The daggerlike blade of Hassam's pick hit something harder than soil but substantially softer than rock. Both men knelt to use their hands to scoop away the surrounding dirt until they uncovered the neck of what looked like a large earthenware jar,

Hassam made a futile attempt to wipe the dust from his beard. 'Perhaps, brother, Allah has smiled upon us. Perhaps there is treasure inside. Else why would someone hide it here at the base of the mountain?'

Muhammad sat back on his haunches. As the older of the two, he made the important decisions. 'Just as likely a jinn lives inside.'

Ever since childhood, both men had heard stories about the evil spirits that had been captured by heros of old and confined to jars. Those foolish enough to let the malevolent creatures escape had usually lived to regret it.

Hassam pointed a jagged, dirt-encrusted fingernail at a spot just below the neck of the vessel. 'But see, older brother, there is a crack. A jinn could have easily gotten out long ago.'

Muhammad thought about this. More likely treasure than a jinn. Standing, he used his mattock to break open the jar.

It was instantly obvious the thing contained neither genie nor treasure. Instead, there were thirteen leather packets. Hope of instant riches quickly fading, the two men unwrapped each to find a number of crumbling papyrus books.

'I cannot read them,' Hassam said, staring at the incomprehensible writing only dimly visible.

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